ANCHORAGE - The stocking of ready-to-catch fish in Interior and Southcentral Alaska lakes may be threatened because two state hatcheries are losing their source of cheap heat.
Hatcheries at Elmendorf Air Force Base and Fort Richardson have relied on thermal waste heat to warm cold water in winter and fuel the growth for fish of catchable size.
However, the free sources of heat are disappearing and the state Department of Fish and Game must decide what to do.
Currently, 270,000 catchable-size rainbow trout and about 125,000 chinook are released every year into nearly 100 lakes. Near Fairbanks, the hatcheries supply Chena Lakes, Ballaine Lake and Birch Lake.
In the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Matanuska Lake, Lake Lucille and Long Lake receive fish. Around Anchorage, the department stocks Jewel Lake, Delong Lake, Sand Lake and Mirror Lake with fish from the hatcheries.
The hatcheries would not completely shut down without warm water. They could still produce recently hatched and young fish to grow on their own. But it would take years for them to grow into something desired by anglers.
"The only two short-term options are stop producing catchable fish or the military keeps sending heat to the hatchery," said Jeff Milton, who is in charge of hatcheries for the Fish and Game Department.
In March, the Fort Richardson power plant turned its lights off, prompting the state to move all of its warm-water-dependent fish operations to Elmendorf.
Beginning in October 2005, Elmendorf expects to save 30 percent of the energy it consumes by turning off its own power and switching to individual boilers for heat. It will buy electricity from Municipal Light and Power.
The Fort Richardson hatchery is already spending $100,000 per year, 10 percent of its budget, to run boilers it installed to replace some of the heat lost in March and to raise the temperature of its water just enough to start the incubation and rearing process for the fish.
The Elmendorf hatchery uses 6,000 gallons of Ship Creek water a minute. To heat the water, which is 32.5 degrees in winter, to 56 degrees for rearing fish, it would cost the facility $600,000 to $1 million per year. The budget at the hatchery is $600,000.
Chinook and rainbow trout do not require warm water to grow but the warm water speeds up the process. It would take more than two years in the wild to grow a rainbow trout to the size the hatchery does in a year, 8 to 9 inches, and two years to grow an 8-inch chinook, which takes just more than a year in the hatchery.